ASTANA – President Nursultan Nazarbayev said the country was “on the right track” in its process of transitioning from Russian to the Kazakh language during his address to top-level officials on Oct. 17.
“You can’t expect an adult to learn a language overnight,” he said, stressing that ethnic Kazakhs who do not speak their own tongue are not to blame, as the language was repressed in Soviet times.
“We need to try to demonstrate understanding towards them. Most importantly, it is written in our constitution that we speak two languages and we don’t discriminate,” the president said.
Today, Russian is still widely spoken in northern and central Kazakhstan. The president called for tolerance in his address and said Russian-speaking communities should not be discriminated against. Recently, there were several high-profile language-related incidents with passengers on the planes taking on stewardesses for poor knowledge or lack of knowledge of the Kazakh language.
On the other hand, the president also stated that “it is necessary to properly understand the aspirations and expectations of ethnic Kazakh peoples, who were on the verge of losing their native tongue and are now trying to restore it.”
Nazarbayev also stressed that it is important to preserve Russian in Kazakhstan during the 15th Nur Otan party congress in Astana on Oct. 18.
“We must not declare that we would only develop our language, our culture. We must keep up with the times,” the president, who is the chairman of the Nur Otan party, said.
“In the future, perhaps, we’ll all even be trying to speak Chinese, if technology is coming from China; and if knowledge and technology comes from Russia, then we need to speak Russian. Eleven million books are published each year, and 80 percent of them are published in English. So to keep up with the times, we have to speak Russian in our country, as it is one of the six global languages. This will help our people prosper in the future,” the president said.
During the Soviet era, all of the Soviet Republics were required to use Russian as their first language. After the collapse of the USSR, all other former Soviet states switched to their native languages in transitions that left many struggling and even migrating. Many ethnic Russians sought support from Russia and moved back to Russia in late 1990s and early 2000s.
President Nazarbayev assured the people in Kazakhstan that the transition in Kazakhstan will be gradual and prudent. In his state-of-the-nation address in January 2012 he said, “A gradual development of the Kazakh language will not be at the expense of Russian.”
According to statistics, Kazakhstan has about 66 percent ethnic Kazakhs, 25 percent ethnic Russians, with Ukrainians, Belarusians, Uzbeks, Koreans and 100 other ethnic groups making up for the remainder. Russian is still widely used in business and government interactions, but in recent years Kazakh has gradually been introduced as the language of choice, especially in areas with the dominant Kazakh population, such as in the south and in the west of the country.
“Kazakhstan is the only post-Soviet country that is still poly-lingual,” the president underlined. “Other Central Asian countries speak their native tongues.”
The president also emphasised the fact that by 2020 or 2025, many people in Kazakhstan will speak Kazakh, as the current generation learning it from a young age now will be grown by then. Then, requiring functional knowledge of the Kazakh language would be appropriate.
A current state programme has a goal of helping 95 percent of the people in Kazakhstan speak Kazakh by 2020, while maintaining a command of Russian.